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Truth in the pleasant disguise of memories

By using unconventional lighting and set design, American playwright Tennessee Williams took what he called “a closer approach to the truth”.

Gisborne audiences can see this for themselves in Evolution Theatre Company’s upcoming production of The Glass Menagerie in which the story unfolds in what Williams once described as “an atmosphere of memory”.

The play features Williams’ alter-ego, Tom Wingfield, played by Andrew Stevens, who acts as a narrator looking back on a painful part of his life, and a younger version of himself who lives with his histrionic mother, and his mentally fragile sister Laura.

The family lives in a dim, cramped apartment that faces an alley, as the Williamses did. Tom dreams of being a poet, but works, as did the playwright as a young man, at a dreary shoe warehouse to support his family. Sleep-deprived and irritable, he struggles to write. Tom feels both obligated toward yet burdened by his family, and longs to escape.

The Glass Menagerie is a memory play, says Stevens.

He quotes, “Being a memory play, it is dimly-lit, it is sentimental, it is not realistic.”

“That sets up the premise,” says Stevens.

“You have to look at the play as seen through the memory of someone.”

The play Proof, that Evolution Theatre staged last year, was realistic, says Stevens.

“In The Glass Menagerie you let yourself drift into a memoir.

“A lot of characteristics of Tom’s mother and sister reflect Williams’ mother and sister. When Williams left them he carried with him regret at leaving his sister behind.”

Played by Elizabeth Boyce, the mother Amanda is a faded Southern belle, abandoned by her husband, and is trying to raise her two children under harsh financial conditions. Her devotion to her children has made her — as she says at one point — almost “hateful” towards them.

After a childhood illness left her with a limp, Tom’s sister Laura (played by Scarlett Fawcett) has a mental fragility and an inferiority complex that has isolated her from the outside world. That fragility is symbolised by the world she has created for herself as a collection of glass figurines, including a fragile unicorn.

Because Amanda obsesses about finding a “gentleman caller” for Laura, Tom invites Jim, an acquaintance from work, home for dinner. The pathos in the second act underlines the play’s themes of loneliness, longing and lost opportunities.

“Tom has made his decision on where he wants to go in life but is held back by his older sister,” says Stevens.

“She is like a social leper, stuck inside the house while his mother is stuck in the past. So Tom has a real issue about going into the world while he has the burden of responsibility for her. Does he abandon his mother and sister or does he suffer and miss out for the sake of his mother and sister?”

The play is tragic in that audiences are used to seeing productions in which everything is resolved at the end, says Stevens.

“This play — you think it’s all going to be OK but . . . ”

But we’ll leave it there.

Williams writes in a descriptive and poetic fashion, says Stevens.

“I adopt a Southern accent that helps with the rhythm of the language. It’s almost melodic.”

In fact, music plays a significant role that Williams once wrote “serves as a thread of connection and allusion between the narrator with his separate point in time and space and the subject of his story”.

As Tom says in the opening of the play, “In memory, everything seems to happen to music”.

“Williams tries to show what it was like for him and how he got away from such a sad story,” says Stevens.

“This is the most challenging and raw play I’ve been in.

“It’s potent.”

HEART OF GLASS: Andrew Stevens plays Tom Wingfield in Evolution Theatre Company’s upcoming production of Tennessee Williams’ semi-autobiographic play The Glass Menagerie. Picture supplied